Ahead Of The Bell: US Unemployment Benefits

WASHINGTON (AP) â¿¿ The number of Americans seeking weekly unemployment benefits likely rose slightly last week, but the longer-term view suggests an improving job market.

Economists forecast that applications for unemployment benefits increased by 4,000 to a seasonally adjusted 340,000 in the week that ended March 23, according to a survey by FactSet. The Labor Department will release the report at 8:30 a.m. EDT Thursday.

Applications rose by 2,000 to 336,000 the previous week. But the four-week average of applications, a less-volatile measure, fell to 339,750. That was the lowest level since February 2008, two months into the Great Recession.

Applications surged during the recession as companies slashed millions of jobs. The number of people seeking benefits averaged only 320,000 a week in 2007. That figure soared to 418,000 in 2008 and 574,000 in 2009.

But as layoffs and firings eased â¿¿ to 1.5 million in January from a peak of 2.6 million four years earlier â¿¿ applications for unemployment aid slowly but steadily came down. They fell to 459,000 in 2010, 409,000 in 2011, and 375,000 last year. The first 11 weeks of this year they are averaging below 350,000.

Hiring is up, too. Employers have added an average of 200,000 jobs per month since November. That's nearly double the average from last spring. And in February, the unemployment rate fell to a four-year low of 7.7 percent.

The economy has been showing other signs of strength. U.S. home prices rose 8.1 percent in January, the fastest annual rate since the peak of the housing boom in the summer of 2006. And demand for longer-lasting factory goods jumped 5.7 percent in February, most in five months.

The economy still has long way to go. The United States has 3 million fewer jobs than it did when the Great Recession began in December 2007. And home prices are down 29 percent from their peak at the height of the housing bubble in August 2006.

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